How I overcame my distaste for poetry while still eliciting a love/appreciation of poetry from my students!
Confession: I teach English/Language Arts and I don’t love poetry. This is a secret I guard with my life as I collaborate with my poetry adoring peers. I completely understand the reasons for reading and appreciating poetry: the brevity of language creating powerful images, the expression of the truest self, the exploration of language, etc. etc. etc... It just isn’t my jam. It isn’t my passion. It is not something I enjoy doling out on unsuspecting teenagers.
My English colleges spend exorbitant amounts of time teaching poetry; reading poetry, writing poetry, poetry slams, poetry exhibits, and after school poetry readings. I, on the other hand, struggle to incorporate poetry within my curriculum—yes, I do break from the pack—and yes, it is possible to do so, I promise! So, what do I teach without this essential piece of English curriculum? My philosophy of teaching truly centers on creating 21st century learners. Will a few of my lovely English students turn into poetry enthusiasts? Probably. Will this be a critical life skill for all 175 students? Nope. My students will learn to read critically- from all texts. They will be able to evaluate fiction and non-fiction. They will be able to identify false claims, and fallacious reasoning. They will be able to express themselves clearly, effectively, and efficiently. These are life skills. End of story.
Okay, it is not the end of the story. Of course, I must teach poetry (poetry enthusiasts everywhere are letting out a collective sigh of relief). As I admitted above, I will have students who love poetry; who find this form of expression as their outlet, their passion, their means of exploring or sharing their world. I do know this. I cannot ignore this fact or our lovely common core standards. Should you find yourself feeling as I do (gasp) or find that your students feel as I do (double gasp), I have found the answer:
Yup, Narrative Poetry. This contains the narrative plot I enjoy, and all of the lovely elements of language poets adore. Win-win! Narrative poems allow students to explore the world of poetry within a structure they have been familiar with since early childhood. Dr. Seuss explored poetry through narration in his works, as do many early reader books. Now, I am not suggesting that high schoolers read Dr. Seuss; this, of course, would be inappropriate (though, arguably, a lot of fun). Iconic narrative poems such as “The Cremation of Sam McGee” by Robert W. Service and “The Canterbury Tales” by Geoffrey Chaucer support students in reading and analyzing challenging poetry through the lens of a familiar story line. It is also a great place to reinforce those plot elements without re-teaching these elements each-and-every-year (another pet-peeve for another day)!
Reading and exploring poetry such as Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee” allow students to use these poems as mentor texts as they begin to draft their own works. In teaching narrative poetry, the students and I will explore all the lovely poetic devices/elements that create the powerful impact and imagery seen within both Chaucer’s and Service’s poetry. I can pull specific stanzas or lines as examples- and encourage similar creations from my students. As they begin to build their story—their own unique tale to tell—they can apply these skills to a written piece that is manageable, applicable, and achievable for all students, even those non-poetry-loving students (and teachers)!
Robert W. Service’s poem, in particular, has had an overwhelmingly positive review from my students. Students have truly enjoyed this poem and its dark tale! They can then use this idea to craft their own tall tale or realistic narrative. I personally love the reading done by Johnny Cash!
Steps to analyzing narrative poetry (according to this gal’s opinion!)**:
1. Plot Analysis
2. Tone & Mood
3. Irony (if there is any)
4. Imagery Analysis
5. Elements of Poetry including Allusions Analysis
6. Extended Response Questions and Application Activities*
7. Drafting of a personal Narrative Poem!
a. Plot/Story Board/Characters
b. Imagery Brainstorming
c. Creation of Stanzas to Fulfill the Storyboard/Plot Development
i. Rhyme Scheme Selection and Development
ii. WORD CHOICE, WORD CHOICE, WORD CHOICE
d. Editing and Revising
I begin with skills students are familiar with- plot, foreshadowing, tone, mood, irony, etc. My upper middle school students/high school students are familiar with most of these elements at this point. This feels safe to all who are unfamiliar with the vast yet oddly specific world of poetry. We then focus on the poetic elements using these poems as mentor texts- considering the author development and purpose as we read in addition to the traditional analysis. This helps students to begin to see poetry from an author’s perspective as well, which fosters a natural and authentic transition from reading poetry to writing poetry.
Now, as students stare at the proverbial blank page, they are not overwhelmed by the often daunting task of creating poetry. There are clear steps in the process of creation. Students can begin by drafting a plot line- something very familiar and comfortable for most. Then we can take this area of comfort to begin developing imagery, rhyme, and the-oh-so-specific word choice necessary to make their poetry memorable and remarkable. This process feels safe for students who are new to the poetry experience, yet it allows for depth, complexity, and creativity for those who have keenly developed their poetic abilities.
*Fun Freebie Spotlight:
After students finish reading and exploring “The Cremation of Sam McGee” with the supports suggested above, I love to have students work on a fun, collaborative application activity to demonstrate their understanding of the text. This freebie will get your students up, moving, collaborating, and acting with these fun improve task cards that deepen comprehension. My students had a great time developing these skits, and the application to this poem was incredible.
** Product Spotlight
I use the following product to deeply analyze narrative poetry. This product will ask students to analyze the plot elements as well as the poetic elements! There are 19 pages covering critical literary analysis skills including extended response questions, and graphic organizers to support in drafting quality responses that include textual evidence! Rubric included!
-Elements of Poetry
-Extended Response Questions- with graphic organizers AND rubric.
Liz is a collaborator on teachwriting.org and the founder of Teach BeTween the Lines. She has been teaching for over ten years; she has loved growing young minds through literature and the art of crafting the written word. She is currently working on her doctorate in Education from the University of Minnesota, and holds an M.A. in Education from St. Mary’s University, Minnesota. She loves to write short stories in her free time, especially in those cold Minnesota winters. She is supported by a wonderful family made better by the addition of her two beautiful children.